WHEATFIELD | It started innocently enough.
In a close, back-and-forth game, Wheeler passed guard to guard, and New Prairie’s Jasen Webb stole the ball before coasting to an uncontested breakaway layup.
Moments later, Webb had run back-to-back ‘go’ routes to capitalize on teammates’ steals, and a few minutes after that New Prairie had turned a 20-19 lead into a 10-point lead and eventual 13-point halftime cushion.
The end result was a 58-34 victory for New Prairie and the end of the line for Wheeler in the opening game of the Class 3A Kankakee Valley Sectional on Tuesday night.
“We came out in the second half and (the run) continued,” Wheeler coach Tom Johnson said. “We stopped the bleeding, but by then the damage was done.”
The Cougars (12-8), led by 23 points from Webb, advanced to face Calumet (12-8) at 6 p.m. Friday in the sectional’s first semifinal.
The third quarter opened with Wheeler (6-14) failing to score a single point for 5:06 and hitting its first field goal of the frame with more than 7:30 gone by on the clock. The Cougars, who had eight steals in the game, led 44-21 before Wheeler’s first point of the third quarter.
“It’s one thing to turn it over, but it’s another thing when you turn it over and the other team runs directly to two points while you’re struggling to score,” Johnson said. “A 17-point deficit is tough enough when you’re both scoring a lot of points, but when you’re struggling to score, it’s really a lot to overcome.”
Wheeler can take solace in the fact that only two seniors from this roster, only one of whom saw major action Tuesday night, will graduate.
One of the returning reasons for optimism is Austin Greiner. The junior guard had 12 points in the first half on the way to 14 points and eight rebounds in the game. Senior James Miller added nine points for the Bearcats.
“Austin had one of his better games, and at this point that’s something we can build on for next season,” Johnson said. “We’ll take a few weeks off and get right back at it.”